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William Blake. Background and Introduction. Blake’s Literary Reputation. Not appreciated in his time. He was well known as an engraver and for his art, but his poetry was obscure due to his strange ideas. Even today many critics believe he is not read as much as he deserves

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william blake

William Blake

Background and Introduction

blake s literary reputation
Blake’s Literary Reputation

Not appreciated in his time. He was well known as an engraver and for his art, but his poetry was obscure due to his strange ideas.

Even today many critics believe he is not read as much as he deserves

Saw his art as much a part of his work as his words

Considered a Romantic – and sometimes a pre-Romantic. He is hard to classify as his ideas were not really typical of the time.

blake growing up
Blake Growing Up

Grew up one of five living children

Parents were religious dissenters – which has a tremdendous impact on Blake’s writing. He is deeply religious and believes in the Bible, but is highly critical of organised religion.

Had visions that he believed were religious/children closer to God

Was educated until 10, then studied at home directing a lot of his own reading.

Read poetry avidly from an early age and critics see the influence of Ben Johnson and Edmund Spenser.

He also has a history of being a little hot-headed.

blake picks up a pencil
Blake picks up a pencil

His parents enrol him in drawing classes early.

He showed a real interest in Michelangelo, Raphael, Marten Heemsterk and Albrecht Dürer.

He later became an apprentice engraver (making plates for printing) and in this role was sent to the Gothic churches of London to sketch. He was deeply affected by Westminster Abbey in particular and this helped him develop his artistic style and ideas.

studying at the royal academy
Studying at the Royal Academy

At 22, Blake began studying painting at the Royal Academy however, he disagreed with many of the ideas of the president at the time. But this did not stop him from exhibiting there six times between 1780 and 1808.

Around about this time he was also present for the Gordon Street riots. These occurred due to the government revoking sanctions against Catholics. The protesters set NewgatePrison ablaze and released the inmates. Biographers disagree as to whether or not he was an active participant or just caught up in it.

love and marriage
Love and Marriage

Met his wife in 1782, after being heartbroken by a refused marriage proposal. She showed him sympathy for his broken heart so he married her.

Despite the haste, they seemed well matched in most ways. Catherine Blake was illiterate, he not only taught her to read and write but also to engrave and she became invaluable to his later artistic works. Her calm temperament also soothed him through the difficult periods of his life.

swedenborgian society
Swedenborgian Society

One of the few patches of difficulty in his marriage was when Blake suggested they should bring another woman into their bed.

In this, Blake was following the teachings of Cristian Mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg. This had a slightly looser attitude to love, possibly because it felt that real marriage occurred in Heaven after death.

blake s contemporaries
Blake’s Contemporaries

Blake worked with publisher Joseph Johnson, who gathered to him many intellectual dissidents of the day such as philosopher Richard Price, theologian and scientist Joseph Priestly, artist John Henry Fuseli, Anglo-American revolutionary Thomas Paine and early feminist Mary Shelley.

While there in no direct evidence that Blake and Shelley met in person, it is known that he approved of her work and illustrated for her.

attitudes we see in blake s work
Attitudes we see in Blake’s work

Blake belonged to no particular political party, but his poetry embodies a strong sense of rebellion against the abuse of power. He was a strong supporter of the French and American Revolutions, but was disappointed with the outcomes, as they replaced monarchies with irresponsible mercantilism.

Championed for free love in his poetry, but this could also be seen as statements against slavery.

Like the Romantics, we will often see mythological and Biblical creatures in his poems.

more attitudes
More Attitudes

He ascribed to a Romantic view of man – who starts out pure and innocent and close to God, but is corrupted by society.

He believed in the creative spirit (imagination) that was present in every living thing. He did not like science which insists that every thing can be measured and explained. Also against the Industrial Revolution.

Blake’s earlier work is considered more accessible. Often his religious views can be clearly read into these.

His later work contains a complex personal mythology that he developed over time. (SHEET)

later years
Later Years

Unlike upper-class Romantic poets like Byron, Blake was poor – but still had some work as an engraver for which he had an excellent reputation.

In 1826 he was commissioned to engrave for Dante’s Divine Comedy. It was a work he was passionate about and engrossed his final year, although it was sadly unfinished. Seven pieces were finished and critic s called them his greatest achievement.

It is said that he spent his last pennies on a pencil to work on this.

divine comedy
Divine Comedy

Blake worked feverishly on these pieces, and many of them do not just reflect the work, but also seem to offer commentary and insight into them.